NHL a dream goal

BOB KLAGER -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET

 It's an amazing thing, this press-box vantage at the Air Canada Centre.

 I can stare straight out from my seat and, through all the Stanley Cup banners and images of former Leafs greats hanging in the rafters, see myself.

  Okay. It's actually Johnny Bower's mug -- not mine. But in my Canadian-boy heart, hope flickers from one curious truth about me and the goalie they used to call The China Wall.

 You see, Bower was a 33-year-old rookie when he hit the NHL in 1958 and, if you take into consideration advances in the design and manufacture of hockey equipment these days, I figure I've more than made up the two years difference. I'm 35 and, in all humility, pretty good between the pipes considering I didn't find myself there until last fall and despite the fact that up until this weekend, I'd been wearing an old pair of Ottawa Senator Chris Phillips' skates.

 GOALIES THE STORY

 That I went out and finally bought a pair of used Bauer Supreme 1000 goalie skates to replace Phillips' more used Bauer Composite 5000's might be a measure of that other Bower's inspiration and a sense that, on several levels, the story of this Eastern Conference quarter-final between the Sens and the Toronto Maple Leafs has been goalies.

 There was the late-season uncertainty surrounding injured and spotty Sens starter Patrick Lalime. Any concern now seems unfounded. There's been the outstanding play of Stanley Cup veteran Eddie Belfour. He's quite possibly the sole reason this series isn't over for the Leafs today.

 Then there is one of the league's best ever. Just before Game 1 in Toronto, I saw him standing for 20 minutes behind the glass in the Senators' end, his eyes riveted on the then-iffy Lalime.

 It was likely just a pre-game scouting mission. But I remember wondering for a second if maybe Ken Dryden wasn't feeling a little sentimental for a game and a day when it was him out there chasing after the Stanley Cup.

 A respected voice in the game, the Leafs vice-chairman wears his love for the sport on his sleeve. And it's unsettling that just as my game's hitting its stride, Dryden has been warning that the NHL is in jeopardy of hitting a wall.

 "Hockey has always been dead-square, mainstream Canadian," he wrote recently. "But hockey is at risk today of becoming an extreme sport, with excitement and danger, thrills and spills, but without the same emotional, in-the-bone connection.

 "Something to watch, not something to do yourself. Something to be amazed about, not something to identify with. Something other, not something me."

 The risk doesn't bode well for a five-year-old boy who's certain I'm an NHL goalie. Hockey, particularly this spring, is something we talk about a lot, it's something he's amazed about from the moment he opens his eyes until those last moments after I tuck him in and he drifts off to sleep.

 EMOTIONAL CONNECTION

 He's a little boy. Just watching the game is enough to convince him that he can skate as fast, shoot as hard and save as well as all of his new heroes in Ottawa and Toronto. It's not something other; it's something all him. And already I see that same emotional, in-the-bone connection that sent me blubbering into the garage every time the Leafs lost in the 1980s. Okay, and maybe the 1990s. And, uh, once or twice in the past few years.

 There's something about the excitement at this time of year that makes me hope the little guy might one day appreciate another time when the boards were white, every dollar was earned and an old hero like his dad could break into the NHL.

 In fact, it kind of makes me think I should autograph those old skates and sell them back to Phillips. I mean, everyone's talking about the possibility this will be a very big year. Who knows? They might just be worth something one day.


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